the Equality of Challenge Initiative
Developing Continuing Professional Development in the Field of Exceptional Ability
What were the main aims of the initiative?
The Equality of Challenge initiative was a post-primary project that aimed to advise the development of support in the area of exceptional ability and dual exceptionality. It was developed and managed in Ireland by the Special Education Support Service (SESS) from 2008–09 to 2013–14, in co-operation with 14 post-primary schools. Key questions for the project included how support and provision in the area could be developed within Irish policy on inclusion and the special educational needs (SEN) systems in operation in schools. Its learning and outcomes helped advise the development of continuing professional development (CPD) in this field.
The Equality of Challenge project was initiated in 2008 when SESS was tasked with providing CPD in the area of exceptional ability and dual exceptionality. As there was no prior structured CPD in this area, the project sought to explore how accepted principles could be implemented and generalised within Irish policy on educational inclusion and the SEN systems in operation in schools. Within this context, the initiative set out the following aim:
A range of potential objectives was also outlined, including the development of:
Location, setting, Scope, key events etc.
This was a small-scale initiative, which began in 2008–09 with just two schools involved.
It went through three phases of development in which 14 schools in total eventually participated. The initiative formally concluded in 2012 and this was followed by a period of review and dissemination by SESS.
Some of the participating schools had approached SESS for support in this area and SESS approached others, so as to have a representative sample of schools involved. For example, SESS was anxious to have a school with a very high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds participating, so that the project could examine under-identification in this context.
As it was a small-scale project with limited resources, objectives and deliverables for schools were not rigidly outlined or prescriptive in nature. Rather, the project facilitated schools in exploring differing aspects of the area that were particularly relevant to their own contexts and resources at any given time.
What issues/challenges does the example address?
SESS took into account the differing theoretical and policy tensions and differences surrounding concepts such as ‘exceptional ability’, ‘giftedness’, ‘gifted and talented’, etc. As a CPD service in the area of SEN, SESS was very aware of Irish policy on SEN and inclusion. In addition, it had some guidelines that were specific to the area of exceptional ability from which to draw. These were, primarily, the 1993 Report of the Special Education Review Committee (SERC) and a 2007 publication by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, entitled Exceptionally Able Students: Draft Guidelines for Teachers.
In terms of implementation, therefore, the project title – Equality of Challenge – reflected Irish inclusion policy and also that of the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education which, after exploring the evolving conceptual basis of inclusion, stated that, in common with UNESCO, it understood inclusive education in terms of the ‘presence’, ‘participation’ and ‘achievement’ of all learners across the curriculum (European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, 2010. Inclusive Education in Action – Project Framework and Rationale. Odense, Denmark: European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, 2010).
How was the Initiative implemented?
Dr Tom Daly, an Assistant National Co-ordinator with SESS, managed the project from 2008 to 2014, with the support of two Directors: Ms Joan Crowley O’Sullivan and Ms Madeline Hickey. Other SESS resources and personnel were also drawn upon, along with expertise that developed from within the participating schools.
The project was seen as exploratory rather than prescriptive, providing support to schools to investigate various aspects of the topic which fitted their particular circumstances, while always focusing on the ‘end game’ of inclusive, differentiated provision in the classroom in line with policy.
Support events organised by SESS for schools, such as workshops for participating teachers, drew heavily on CPD principles, including ‘situated cognition’ and ‘communities of practice’. These focused on the concept of teachers as learners within interactive systems rather than as isolated practitioners.
Supports provided by SESS included:
Although the project did not have the capacity to closely support learning communities in the schools, it did encourage and support instructional leadership and the development of ‘communities of practice’ within schools. These worked to varying degrees, depending on internal dynamics.
While the project allowed for flexibilities in schools’ circumstances and interests, SESS did indicate key priorities from time to time.
The project had three main phases.
Phase 1: 2008–09
The project began in 2008–09 with just two schools which had already attempted to make progress in this area and which had requested support from SESS. The project aims and approaches were refined during this period and SESS developed an ‘Approach Framework’ which had a twin-track approach (available, along with other information and resources, at www.sess.ie/equality-challenge):
Teachers who were developing expertise in these two schools became valuable resources to the project for its remaining phases.
Phase 2: 2010–12
Eight further schools participated during this phase. Some had approached SESS for support in the area and SESS approached others so as to have a representative sample of schools involved. For example, SESS was anxious to have a school with a very high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds participating, so that the project could examine under-identification in this context.
In 2011, SESS carried out a review of the initiative, in collaboration with the schools, and a list of priorities for the continuing stages was agreed:
Also during this period, SESS conducted a small-scale survey in order to provide a pin-picture of provision for exceptionally able and dual exceptional students in Irish post-primary schools. This survey was carried out during a series of full-day post-primary seminars on exceptional ability, presented by SESS. A total of 35 questionnaires were completed by personnel from schools which were represented. As such, the survey was limited in scale.
Twenty-five questions were asked, arranged in three themes:
Four options were provided for answers to the questions on each theme:
In summary, the results can be distilled into ‘Largely Yes’ and ‘Largely No’ answers. These results showed relatively low levels of development in schools in all three areas, as summarised in Table 1.
Table 1: Survey results
Policy and knowledge
Structure and organisation
Learning and teaching
While the results had to be treated tentatively given the small sample, they suggested much scope for development in this area.
Phase 3: 2012–14
Much was being learned from the project and a pool of expertise was developing, both within SESS and in the schools. By this stage, for example, SESS had developed and delivered a whole-school seminar on exceptional ability for schools and was also providing CPD support through a range of other mechanisms. Therefore, with the aims of the project being reached, it was decided to conclude it following the 2012–14 phase.
Five further schools participated during this period, while some of those previously involved became inactive for a variety of reasons: for example, because they felt that their provision had become adequately developed, or because of changes in personnel or resource issues in schools. Nine schools in all participated during this phase.
SESS support continued to follow both the structure and CPD principles outlined above. For example, the agenda for a 2012 workshop included a number of short, ten-minute presentations by SESS, each of which was followed by input from each of the participating teachers on their progress and experience in this area, along with discussion and sharing of practice and ideas. During this particular workshop, the presentations and discussions focused on the themes of:
In this way, a safe and trusting ‘community of practice’ was developed and this proved popular and effective.
What where the key Outcomes? What impact/added value did they prove? What were the biggest challenges?
The Equality of Challenge initiative was created to help inform the development of CPD provision in the area of exceptional ability for SESS. For SESS, this main purpose was successfully achieved, in that the project did significantly help to advise on the development of support which had not existed previously.
Therefore, by the end of the project period, SESS had a comprehensive range of supports in place and much expertise had been developed. The initiative also provided a clear picture of what a school with good provision in this area ‘looks like’ – i.e. how its systems of assessment and inclusive differentiated learning and teaching might work.
Some further learning and insights from the Equality of Challenge project include:
There follows an elaboration of some of the points previously summarised.
The concept of exceptional ability and special educational needs (SEN)
When focusing on developing both their policy and provision, many schools were unsure initially about what is meant by ‘exceptional ability’ and interpretations of the concept varied. Practical questions and dilemmas were faced, such as:
In relation to these questions, the project found that:
The key role of assessment
As the project developed, it became clear that the area of assessment was very important – e.g. that appropriate teaching was difficult without identification of students and their particular traits, strengths and needs. This was even more important in relation to dual exceptionality.
In line with international trends, it was found that teachers are weak at identifying exceptionally able students without CPD input. For example, very able and high-achieving students tended to be identified even though they may not have been within the category, while other ‘types’ who were exceptionally able, such as those who had become frustrated, disaffected and disengaged, lay outside the common interpretation of the concept. Again in line with international findings, these issues improved greatly with support and CPD.
Keeping a focus on inclusion and extension
The project found that it was necessary for schools to keep a constant focus on inclusion – i.e. that the main provisions should be in the form of differentiated pedagogy in the mainstream classroom.
As with many other aspects of the Irish post-primary system, the terminal examination – the Leaving Certificate – tended to dominate thinking, with the examination results being seen as the major objective and without an understanding that some exceptionally able students may be underachieving despite ‘scoring’ very highly in the exam – i.e. that the Leaving Certificate was putting a ‘glass ceiling’ on expectations of the exceptionally able.
Highlighting social and emotional issues
The project found that, without CPD in schools, there was a limited understanding of the social and emotional issues that are related to exceptional ability, and that it is especially beneficial to have personnel in the school with a more advanced understanding of these.
The importance of metacognition
Metacognitive strategies were identified early in the project as being a potentially fruitful area of development. Much work was done in this area – outlined further below – but the main learning was that:
Has the initiative been evaluated or are there plans for this in the future?
Given the project resources, there was no external evaluation process, but SESS continually assessed the project through its normal evaluation procedures.
The feedback was continually very positive. As an example, at the final teachers’ workshop in May 2014, SESS requested teachers to provide written feedback on the support they received from SESS during the project. The template for this feedback was structured flexibly, with pointers provided such as ‘what worked well’ and ‘what did not work so well’. Extracts are provided below while the full feedback is contained in Appendix 5 of the full project report, available at: www.sess.ie/equality-challenge
Have any plans been made for future direction of the initiative?
In line with its initial aims, the project informed the development of a support structure in the area of exceptional ability and dual exceptionality which is now embedded in SESS CPD structures.
Various resources and support material have also been developed – these are further outlined below.
What are the main learning points?
Various specific learning outcomes from the project are outlined above.
However, perhaps the main learning is a re-enforcement of the value of trialling internationally accepted principles in a national or local context.
In its development of a support structure for exceptional ability, SESS could have merely re-issued generally accepted principles. However, through this approach a much more refined outcome was achieved, sensitive to national policy and systems, and this greatly helped the development of a more successful CPD response.
Are there further information about supporting materials?